Tag Archives: the problem of evil

Abandon all hope

In yet another argument undermining the wisdom of the New York Times' paywall, Ross Douthat, resident prude, argues that hell must exist.  His argument hinges on the reality of human choices.  Human choices, without the possibility of eternal damnation, just wouldn't be real.  He writes:

Doing away with hell, then, is a natural way for pastors and theologians to make their God seem more humane. The problem is that this move also threatens to make human life less fully human.

Atheists have license to scoff at damnation, but to believe in God and not in hell is ultimately to disbelieve in the reality of human choices. If there’s no possibility of saying no to paradise then none of our no’s have any real meaning either. They’re like home runs or strikeouts in a children’s game where nobody’s keeping score.

In this sense, a doctrine of universal salvation turns out to be as deterministic as the more strident forms of scientific materialism. Instead of making us prisoners of our glands and genes, it makes us prisoners of God himself. We can check out any time we want, but we can never really leave.

The doctrine of hell, by contrast, assumes that our choices are real, and, indeed, that we are the choices that we make. The miser can become his greed, the murderer can lose himself inside his violence, and their freedom to turn and be forgiven is inseparable from their freedom not to do so.

As Anthony Esolen writes, in the introduction to his translation of Dante’s “Inferno,” the idea of hell is crucial to Western humanism. It’s a way of asserting that “things have meaning” — that earthly life is more than just a series of unimportant events, and that “the use of one man’s free will, at one moment, can mean life or death … salvation or damnation.”

There are other ways our choices are real, I'd argue.  In the first place, our choices create our character right now.  Our choices also affect other people right now.  That, I think, is probably punishment enough.  Meditating on eternal damnation before deciding whether you want to have carnal knowledge of chunky Reese Witherspoon seems a bit much.

Not to be facile, but Douthat also seems to offer one key reason for not thinking there's a hell:

Is Gandhi in hell? It’s a question that should puncture religious chauvinism and unsettle fundamentalists of every stripe. But there’s a question that should be asked in turn: Is Tony Soprano really in heaven?

Seems like if there were a hell, and if there were a just overseer of it, we'd have an absolutely unequivocal answer to this question.  Turns out, however, we don't.  So maybe our choices have eternal reality in hell, which just can't determine which ones will send us there.

Dear Santa Claus

Another foray into logic and rock 'n roll.  This time, it's one of my personal favorites, XTC's "Dear God":  Lyrics/ Video. First, a quick survey of the argument of the song and then three argumentative-logical issues.

"Dear God" is supposed to a letter addressed to God.  The contents of the letter amount to two separate arguments for atheism.  The primary argument is the argument from evil.  Here is the background commitment:  gratuitous suffering in the world is inconsistent with a just, capable and creative god.  The argument is then made by a series of examples of gratuitous suffering.  First is the problem of hunger:

But all the people that you made in your image
See them starving in the street
'Cause they don't get enough to eat from god

Second is the problem of strife (specifically religious strife):

And all the people that you made in your image
See them fighting in the street
'Cause they can't make opinions meet about god

Third is a cattle call of ills:

You're always letting us humans down
The wars you bring, the babes you drown
Those lost at sea and never found
And it's the same the whole world 'round
The hurt I see helps to compound
That father, son and holy ghost
Is just somebody's unholy hoax

Now, for sure, the argument from evil needs only one evil that's gratuitous, but when you get a list like that, it's supposed to improve the argument.  I think this is because we all recognize that as the evils pile up, they all seem so pointless and horrible, and as they seem to keep coming, we're supposed to see the responses to the argument from evil as being progressively less and less plausible.  In this respect, the argument from evil is less a purely logical game of finding contradictions, but more a process of seeing just how unlikely it is that God could be just if he allowed all that evil.  So the cattle call isn't, I think, just a rhetorical flourish (or powerful songwriting… again, listen to that part!), it's supposed to play an argumentative role, but in a rough version of the evidential problem of evil. 

The second argument is a subsidiary one, but is nevertheless worth mentioning. It's the argument from anthropogenesis: the observation that we have natural world explanations for all the events leading up to the founding of the religions and the development of their dogmas, so they, at least in their claims to supernatural revelation, must be false:

Did you make mankind after we made you?. . .

Dear god don't know if you noticed but…
Your name is on a lot of quotes in this book
And us crazy humans wrote it, you should take a look
And all the people that you made in your image
still believing that junk is true
Well I know it ain't, and so do you

Effectively: c'mon, god, you know we made you and all the stories about you up.  Therefore: you don't exist. Q to the E to the D, baby!

The three logical points. #1. The argument from evil is easy to present, but very difficult to get just right.  The problems of hunger and strife are ones we bring on ourselves, a theodicy may run, and so we are, in saying that God is responsible for these things, not acknowledging our responsibilities.  God, if he were to step in to resolve these moral evils, would not be respecting our freedoms and making it possible for us to be worthy of his love. 

The natural evils on the docket (disease, babes drowning , etc.) are consequences of living in a world with natural laws.  And so we must accept that given that this world is intelligible, it must also have correlate dangers.  Another strategy for theodicy here would be to go skeptical, and say:  perhaps the letter should be written a little less dogmatically – asking for why these things happen, instead of insisting that God has no good reason.  Perhaps, it may go, God does have a reason…  Regardless, the evils in the song aren't enough to make the full case.  You need to wrestle with the rationalizations God (or his spokesperson) might give for that case to go through. 

The problem with the argument, then, is that it is insufficiently dialectical, even if the entity addressed doesn't exist.  Not that I don't think the argument from evil kicks theism's rear, it's just that theodicy is actually a pretty formidable opponent, and a laundry list of evils isn't much of a case yet.  It's nice songwriting, but as an argument, *yawn*.

#2. The argument from anthropogenesis is often rhetorically powerful, but it's really just wind.  Any non-insane defender of theism can concede that the traditions of churches and the transmission of (and perhaps even the overwhelming majority of the contents of ) the sacred texts are products of human agency.  That doesn't mean that theism is false, it just means that humans are really keen on making stuff up and believing stuff about God.  Now, again, it, like the argument from evil, is more of a cumulative case — you keep piling up all the cases where things just don't look right.  But, again, cumulatively it just shows that there are multiple natural causes at work in the developments of the religion.  No refutation, but if anything, begging the question.

#3. Is the presentation self defeating?  I remember that when I first heard the song, I immediately asked whether it made sense to say to God: I don't believe in you.  That's weird.  Surely, if you're addressing God, you're committing, informally, to his existence.  Otherwise, the speech act of addressing is inappropriate.  I'm not the only one who's had that thought.  Visit any of the discussions about the song (either on the threads above, or here).  Here's a strong version of the challenge:   The most this song can show is that the author has doubts about god's existence, but in addressing god in the song, he actually finds that he nevertheless does believe.  That's faith, baby, faith!

That argument stinks.  First, it doesn't undercut the conclusion of the argument: God doesn't exist.  Just because the author happens to address the argument to God doesn't have any bearing on whether the argument demonstrates its conclusion.  If I addresssed a letter to Santa Claus explaining all my reasons for holding that he does not exist, that would not in any way effect the correctness of the arguments, nor would it change the truth of my conclusion. Moreover, I could  write a letter to Santa, tell him he doesn't exist and even mail it to the North Pole, and I could still believe he doesn't exist.  That's why I wrote the letter!   Second, think of the song as more like therapy.  The author has been believing in God, perhaps, for a long time.  He's prayed to Him regularly, and as a consequence, is in the habit of addressing God.  And so in coming to terms with his atheism, the author feels the need to speak to God one more time… a kind of breakup talk, but one not really addressed to God, but one really composed and performed for himself.  That's what the prayers were all along, anyhow. 

In sum: the song's a standard argument from evil, nicely performed.  But it's a thin version of it. Weak, really.  But it's at least not self refuting, so there's that.

False trichotomy

I'm puzzled by the point of this David Ignatius piece about the Haitian earthquake.  He rightly condemns Pat Robertson (see here) for having a poor explanation for the earthquake's striking Haiti, but then he does the old columnist trick of finding people with an opposing viewpoint who assert something equally dumb.   They must teach this move in columnist school, because they all at one point or another will do it.  He writes:

An extreme example of this desire to "explain" tragedy was the Rev. Pat Robertson's statement a day after the quake. He said that Haiti had been "cursed" by God because its people "swore a pact to the devil" two centuries ago through voodoo rites.

There are secular versions of this same desire to interpret horrifying events. Looking at the devastation, some observers have seen the effects of Haiti's class system, with poor people suffering disproportionately, as reported by The Post's William Booth ["Haiti's elite spared from much of the devastation," news story, Jan. 18]. Richard Kim blamed harsh international loan policies for Haiti's chronic poverty in a Jan. 15 post on the Nation's Web site.

Other commentators have drawn different lessons. David Brooks faults Haitian culture. "Some cultures are more progress-resistant than others, and a horrible tragedy was just exacerbated by one of them," he wrote in the New York Times. Anne Applebaum argued in The Post that this was "a man-made disaster" and that the earthquake's impact "was multiplied many, many times by the weakness of civil society and the absence of the rule of law."

There's some truth in all of the secular explanations. But they leave out the most painful and perplexing factor we encounter whenever terrible things happen: bad luck. The same problem arises when catastrophic events befall people we love — a life-threatening disease, say. We look for a rational explanation of why this person got cancer, but his neighbor, who has all the same risk factors, didn't. Often, the most honest answer is: It just happened.

I think the Reverend Robertson meant to point out the cause of the earthquake.  The fellows in the second paragraph highlight things which exacerabated the misfortune of the earthquake.  They don't allege, as the last paragraph asserts, that bad luck played no role in the occurence of the earthquake.  I don't see how they could.

Not even Ignatius, however, believes his own silly but-one-the-other-handing.  For he concludes (after a trip back to the Lisbon earthquake of 1755) by affirming the very same lessons he rejects:

The hero of the Lisbon tale was the man who led the relief efforts, the marquis of Pombal, who served as prime minister under King Joseph I of Portugal. Pombal had no use for the anguishing debate. He famously said: "What now? We bury the dead and feed the living." And he did just that, rapidly disposing of the corpses, seizing stocks of grain to feed the hungry and ordering the militia to halt looting and piracy. Within a year, the city was being restored.

I will think of Pombal as I watch the reconstruction of Haiti. His response to imponderable devastation was to rebuild, boldly and confidently, making sure the new buildings could withstand a future quake.

"Nature has no meaning; its events are not signs," concludes Neiman. Earthquakes are not evil; evil requires intent; it is what human beings do. The response to inexplicable events is not debate but action.

Good for Pombal–he recognizes that the human element (poverty, inequality, corruption, etc.) makes such misfortunes worse–which is nearly exactly what the secular types were saying.

Anyhoo.  I think this is a fairly common form of argument.  It consists in creating an unrepresentative dichotomy (not a false one in the classical fallacy sense), in order to make the case for a third, more reasonable option.  In that sense it does represent a kind of false trichotomy, where strawmanly false extremes imply a kind of third non-extreme way.